Dr. A, my mother’s handsome Bolivian neurosurgeon, lost his father on Everest. I pictured whorls of snow, a worthless compass and a man, stepping out into thin air. I was slightly in love with Dr. A, and so was my mother. Her first appointment, she said, “I know you’re married, but this is serious. We need to find my daughter a husband.” He smiled, saying, “Well, don’t date a surgeon.” He opened up her skull and took what he could of the tumor. He was good, but he wasn’t a magician: a trail of cancer cells dragged behind it, straight back to malignancy.

Months after her surgery, I saw him at a bar with a nurse from the ICU. I wasn’t surprised. We had heard he was leaving his second wife. Watching them, I thought of the way his hands might map bodies—wives, nurses, mine. He came over to our table, unstable on his feet, and talked of issues at home, a separation. He wanted us to know he was good, he was kind, cheating was relative, and he knew what it was to have a parent die. My mother was still alive then, but she was losing everything. As he walked away, I closed my eyes and pictured her dancing on that mountaintop in Nepal, taking one last breath of rarified air before her body turned to ashes and she was released, left to land along the Milky Way.


I had my son at forty-one, a year after my mother died. As he’s learned to crawl, walk and speak, I have aged at light speed. Grief, plus growing a whole human, means my body’s bumpy roadmap is riddled with blinking caution lights and failure to yield violations, but somehow, middle age feels twenty years away. I’m not sure how I got here, although it’s simple math. I do know that when my mother was dying, I lost a whole year. I took her out for a spin in her wheelchair, and told her I couldn’t believe I was turning thirty-eight that winter. She put her good hand up into the air and said, “No, 1972,” several times until I realized she meant I was actually turning thirty-nine. 

At forty-five, while I’m finally comfortable in my own skin, it’s not the one I was attempting to fit into—that one was plump, rosy, glowing. That one was young. In moments of despair, I search my face for traces of my mother’s, and am comforted when I find her in the arch of my eyebrows or rise of my cheekbones. When that fails, I seek refuge in the soft perfection of my son’s fingers and toes, or the space behind his ears.

For a long time, I was impatient for him to grow up so that I could return to my former self and that previous skin. I know now they aren’t waiting for me to rejoin them and get on with things. They’re gone, a dreamy memory that exists alongside my past everything—lingering in the cosmos, just out of reach. 


It is 3 a.m. My son appears in our bedroom, a four-year-old silhouette of messy hair and button nose. “I want to see the moon,” he says. His father snores. I lift him to my hip and we go out into the inky Northern California morning. We scan the horizon, stare up into sky. I stand on my tiptoes, and we peek over the roof, but the moon eludes us.

He points to an airplane and calls it a star; he points to a star and calls it a spaceship. I show him the Big Dipper, and in my mind’s eye, I see my mother. I am his age, and we are back in Montana, at the edge of Glacier National Park. It was summer when she took me out to the edge of Flathead Lake and said words like Andromeda and Cassiopeia, while ripples of moonlight filled the water. I remember the warmth of her.

My son is disappointed. We cannot see what we came to see. I put my cheek against his, and try to explain that everything is in orbit, we are in a constant rotation of things seen and not seen. Right now, I tell him, in another dimension, he and I are stardust, spinning together in the night. Close your eyes, I say, reach out and touch the constellations, drag your hand along the surface of the moon.

Abby Mims’ work has appeared in The New York Times (Modern Love), Ploughshares, Nailed Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus and The Normal School, among other publications. She is at work on a memoir and contemplating the idea of a novel. 

Artwork by Dev Murphy